Meet: Chris Sweeney
Flight Simulation Engineer, Vertical Motion Simulator
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA
Who I Am
My job is part project lead and part flight simulation engineer. I work
at the Vertical Motion Simulator (VMS) at Ames Research Center. The VMS
is the world's largest motion simulator with 60' of vertical travel and
the capability to move 40' laterally. It rotates 25 degrees in pitch,
roll, and yaw on a cone-shaped post with a two-axis gimbal (ball). The
facility has the capacity for the large motions and accelerations which
are very good for handling quality studies with different types of aircraft.
My job involves putting different pieces of an aircraft
together on a computer. If we are working with an aircraft that has not
been simulated at the VMS, a brand new architecture, we receive a mathematical
description of the model. This includes an aerodynamic database from wind
tunnel tests, block diagrams describing the flight control system, equations
describing the guidance and navigation system of the aircraft, and models
of whatever means of propulsion the aircraft has, an engine for an airplane
or a rotor in the case of a helicopter.
We simulate a wide variety of aircraft (which is
one of the reasons why I like this job) and each engineer probably works
on three to four projects a year. These projects can include fixed wing
aircraft, like the space shuttle or high speed civil transport or fighter
aircraft, like an STOVL, Harrier-type aircraft. They can include the tilt
rotor, the military V-22 or civilian version (CTR) or helicopters like
the Apache, the Comanche, and the Blackhawk. There are some unusual projects,
too, including a blimp, a car, and a bobsled.
My Career Path
Coming out of high school and deciding I wanted to go to college, I tried
to decide what I wanted to study. I was always interested in aircraft
and flying and thought for awhile about becoming a pilot. When I applied
to various schools, I applied to the Air Force Academy and other aeronautics
schools to pursue my interest in flying and aeronautical engineering.
I attended the University of California at Davis
because it was the only UC school with an aeronautics program. As I got
into my studies, I found it was fun, because you get to work on a real
product, something physical and tangible, that you can see and see fly,
which is very exciting. In college, I worked on a project for an engine
manufacturer and decided that was not really the area in which I wanted
to specialize. We developed a propulsion lab at school, and I realized
I was more interested in aerodynamics and avionics. I am still very much
an aviation buff. I like airplanes and airshows. I graduated as an aeronautical
engineer. I decided that I would like to work either for an airframe manufacturer
or company which worked on flight controls where you get to work on a
This job at NASA became available which involved
software and computers as well as aircraft. It sounded very interesting
so I decided to apply. I have been at NASA for ten years now. I started
as a junior simulation engineer and now I am a senior project engineer
(and I had couple of titles in-between).
What I Like About My Job
Working with the simulator is great fun. It's like playing a giant video
game with real aircraft and you get to program what can happen. I get
to spend time, seven to eight weeks for each project, in the lab getting
hands-on flying time and checking out the aircraft. For half the year,
I get to go in the cab every morning for half an hour and fly around to
ensure the simulation is working properly. Most of the time you're flying
fixed base but, we also have a motion base so it feels like you're really
flying. That's a blast!
For example, the inside of the High Speed Civil Transport
cab looks like a passenger aircraft with a set of four throttles, a stick,
and pedals. When you look out the pilot's windows, instead of looking
out at the real world, we have computer-generated imagery of an airport.
Some of our runs will start on the runway and involve taking off and flying
around to monitor the handling qualities of the aircraft.
As you're sitting on the runway, the pilot will put
on the brakes, push the throttles all the way forward, hear the spooling
up of the engines (audio generated by the sound model). When the pilot
releases the brakes, he can feel the acceleration forward due to the six
feet of longitudinal travel as well as pitching motion in the cab.
The only negative side of my job is that I don't
actually get to see the finished product. Since we are a research and
development facility, we work on many products to be developed in the
future. Right now, I am doing a lot of work for a high speed research
program for which the goal is to achieve a speed of Mach 2.4 in a civil
transport aircraft that will hold 300 people, and go 5000 miles from San
Francisco to Tokyo in four hours instead of eleven hours. It will be 2010
before it's built. It will be a long wait to have the joy of seeing the
actual vehicle roll out and see it flying.
When I Was A Kid
I was interested in sports as a child. I read biographies, and many of
the biographies I read were about people who were interested in flying
and aviation. This motivated me to read more about aviation. As a kid,
I attended a couple of airshows, which were very exciting. This made it
more interesting reading about airplanes and flying, less like school
work. I also remember going to the Exploratorium where there were exhibits
about flying and the different things that helped such a heavy thing as
an aircraft get off the ground. My parents encouraged me, my brother,
and sister to pursue our interests.
I definitely would like to stay in the aeronautics/aerospace industry.
I love what I'm doing in this job and I can see myself working for an
airplane manufacturer or in the spacecraft/satellite industry.